"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Is Morris Theater worth maintaining?

Memories are abundant here: our Morris MN movie theater. (B.W. photo)

The Morris Theater got a "bailout" on an extremely micro level about three years ago. Certain civic-minded people apparently rushed in and gave it emergency life support.
Curt Barber got out of the business and apparently couldn't find a buyer who was willing to continue it as a standard for-profit theater. Which would have opened the door to something like a church moving in. Or perhaps plain old closed doors, like that haunted Coborn's building now, or Anderson Nursery.
The last movie I ever saw at our Morris Theater was "Tropic Thunder." It seemed like an interesting satirical movie. But an old bugaboo associated with the Morris Theater revealed itself: bad sound.
My theory all along is that the sound system itself was never really at fault for this. The problem is that the theater is too large. It's way too much space for the sound to have to fill, even with a good system.
I left the theater on the night I saw "Tropic Thunder" thinking "That was a pretty good movie but I'd like to see it again on DVD."
Who would have guessed back in the heyday of such theaters that any patron would actually "prefer" watching a major Hollywood release on a TV screen, over the theater? But today, not only does the TV seem preferable in many respects, even computer screens have become a preferred medium. Why? It must be because of the quality.
Size of the screen and size of the theater, one surmises, were never really the factors.
As with all transformations in our popular entertainment universe, the new reality sets in slowly. I remember when the Alexandria theater complex expanded and there were quite small theater rooms becoming part of the mix there. The first time I entered one of those rooms, I immediately felt let down. I was sure this was going to be an inferior experience. I almost thought "ripoff."
Then something interesting happened. When the house lights went off, I was no longer aware that I was seated in a small room. I believe the movie I saw that night was "Something to Talk About" starring Julia Roberts and Robert Duvall.
The revelation about theater design was more memorable than that movie. My old notions about what a "movie theater" was supposed to be like, had to be revised.
I still attended an occasional movie at our old Morris Theater, out of habit and because it was the only place locally I could see current movies. Seeing them in a small room, where the sound challenges are more manageable, would have been preferable.
Old legacy systems can hang on for a while, because that's just how we are. Old habits reinforce a sense of predictability about the world around us. But darn it, I want to hear all the dialogue!
First Lutheran Church in Morris has converted a bottom floor room to a movie theater. I haven't seen a full movie there but I checked it out during an open house. Not surprisingly the viewing experience in this old Sunday school room is terrific. Pastor Todd Mattson should be proud.
Pastor Todd and his wife Kris were at the Morris Theater on the night when I saw "Mystic River," the Clint Eastwood-produced movie that was critically acclaimed although I found it monumentally depressing. It's clear the theater was struggling if the turnout was so meager you can remember years later who was in the theater on the night when you saw a particular movie. (Garrison Keillor would chuckle at this.)
"Mystic River" was too dark, violent and depressing.
The tremendous strides in communications and entertainment technology have created the optimal viewing experience with the smallest of tools and facilities. Even a laptop computer. Or netbook, with headphones.
The youth of the 1950s wouldn't believe it. The Morris Theater was built in around 1940 and I would guess it had a heyday of about 15 years before television started chipping away. It held on quite fine through my younger days.
Many of us habitually watched TV in the evening but still looked forward to when Elvis Presley's name was on the Morris Theater marquee. You could always tell an Elvis movie was in town by the type of crowd that would stream across Sixth Street from the parking lot by the old Willie's Red Owl.
(Yes, it was a "Red Owl" store back then, not "Super Valu" as it is today, and Willie himself - RIP - might've punched you playfully if you slipped and called it "Super Valu." Super Valu back then was Juergensen's, located where the Aaron Carlson outfit is now.)
Those were "American Graffiti" scenes back then.
"If you don't remember that you're a rat fink!"
Should people have just gotten out of the way and allowed a church, perhaps Morris Community Church, to move in to the old Morris Theater? I sort of think "yes." But then people would have to make that (albeit routine) trip to Alexandria to see current box office smash movies.
Is there anything wrong with going to Alexandria? The automatic response might be that we need to support Morris businesses.
But this community continues to (apparently) support a newspaper (the Morris Sun Tribune, owned out of Fargo) that showers us with advertising circulars for Alexandria businesses. Those circulars, which even include grocery stores, scream at us: "Come to Alex!"
Unless the Morris Area Chamber of Commerce or some other prominent individuals speak out about this, I'll assume that Morris people are simply conflicted on the issue of spending money out of town.
I suspect that some of the community pillars who got involved "saving" the Morris Theater did so partly out of concern for the University of Minnesota-Morris. How would it look for this community, home of a prestigious branch of the U of M, not to have a theater for current big screen attractions? It's an amenity in this very amenity-starved town.
(That might be remedied if Wal-Mart builds here come spring, as is rumored.)
So does the preservation of the old theater serve these interests?
UMM students are in a generation that grew up with digital quality surrounding them, who have no problem consuming their entertainment from laptop computer screens with headphones. The Morris Theater probably strikes them as a dusty, clunky old relic.
I had my first movie experience there, for a western the name of which I don't remember. It was a western that fit the old mold with moral suggestions and clear delineations of right/wrong.
In the 1970s this gave way to more idiosyncratic stuff in the western genre like "They Call Me Trinity." Or of course, "Blazing Saddles."
Ah, what memories.
Click on the link below to read part 2 of my thoughts/reflections on our historic Morris Theater.


-Brian Williams - Morris mn Minnesota - morris theater mn - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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